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10 of the most beautifully written books of all time

Photo by Chalo Garcia
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Why do we read? A few attempts at an answer: to learn how to live our lives, to not be alone, to escape into other universes, and to soak in the beauty of the written word. When I need a reminder of just how spectacular life can be, I turn to a beautifully written book.

Beautiful books, inside and out, can offer us a dose of bibliotherapy when we’re experiencing difficulties, need a helping hand, or simply want some comfort. They offer a balm for the soul to help you get back to where you want to be; back out into the world with mindful gratitude.

The following books are some of the most beautifully written books of all time, offering gorgeous prose, unforgettable characters, and plots that help you to appreciate the wonder and beauty of life.

Which of these beautifully written books have you already read, and which ones can you add to your to-read list?

10 of the most beautiful books with truly gorgeous writing

1. The Waves by Virginia Woolf

The Waves is in close contention with Mrs Dalloway for my favourite novel by Virginia Woolf. It’s an innovative and wonderfully poetic book, layering six voices in monologue; moving from morning until night, from childhood into old age. All against the backdrop of the sea. The Waves helped to create modern fiction and is one of the most beautiful books ever written. If you love language, I think you’ll cherish it too.

“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.”

The Waves

2. A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

A Whole Life is a book that will move you to tears – and then make you want to turn back to the beginning and read it again.

It’s a story of the simple life of Andreas Egger, who knows every path and peak of his mountain valley in the Austrian Alps. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book about what life is really made of; both the little and the big.

Choose whether you’d like to read it in a couple of sittings (like I did on a snow day in Switzerland) or try to savour it for longer. Or read it twice and do both.

“You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment. That’s the way it is.”

A Whole Life

Another book by Robert Seethaler is The Tobacconist, which is a tender (and extremely heartbreaking) story about one young man and his friendship with Sigmund Freud during the Nazi occupation of Vienna.

3. The Overstory by Richard Powers

A paean to the natural world, Richard Powers masterfully weaves together interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The Overstory is a spellbinding gateway into the vast, interconnected, and magnificently intricate world that we depend on in so many ways: the world of trees.

“You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes. . . .”

The Overstory

4. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s writing will break your heart while you marvel at her mesmerising prose. The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s acclaimed first novel, is a powerful and painful examination of our obsession with white beauty that questions race, class, and gender with her iconic subtly, grace, and poetic wonder.

“And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.”

The Bluest Eye

5. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

The Living Mountain is one of the very best mountain memoirs ever written, crafted with so much simple magic and elegance by a woman in a sea of male writers. Each chapter is focused on a different aspect of a mountain experience; water, frost and snow, air and light, and being. Another favourite quote of mine is from Nan Shepherd’s first book, The Quarry Wood: “It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.”

“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”

The Living Mountain

6. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt may only write a book a decade, but they are worth every year of waiting. The Goldfinch is perhaps her most breathtaking novel. In this story of loss, survival, self-invention, and the hope that keeps us going, a young New Yorker grieving his mother’s death is pulled into a gritty underworld of art and wealth.

“But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead”

The Goldfinch

7. “The Dead” by James Joyce

“The Dead”, the final short story of Dubliners, James Joyce’s iconic collection, contains one of the most beautifully written sentences in the English language. This is perfect prose: every word is immaculately arranged, flowing like the falling snow Joyce so delicately describes.

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

“The Dead”
Dubliners book cover

8. Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver

Especially here in Why I Wake Early, Mary Oliver truly gets to the beauty of life – she’s one of the finest poetic ambassadors for the natural world. I love how humble her poetry is, how there are no wasted words: “Watch, now, how I start the day / in happiness, in kindness”.

I pinned to the wall of my old house a hand-written version of the following poem, next to a map of Switzerland marked with the route I’d walked across. I saw it every morning, and it reminded me to get outside and be a part of the world.

The Old Poets Of China

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

9. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi was at the pinnacle of his career as a surgeon when he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer at just thirty-six. When Breath Becomes Air is the story of his transformation from a medical student to surgeon, to patient, seeking answers as to what makes a virtuous and meaningful life. With beautiful prose and powerful questions about what to do when a life is catastrophically interrupted, this is one of the most moving memoirs of the last decade.

“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”

10. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This stunningly ambitious novel (and Pulitzer Prize winner) is the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in occupied France during World War II. It’s one of those books that I finished and wished I could read again for the first time. Although, it has been a few years… a re-read could be just as magical.

On Reddit, one user writes, “It is just loaded with gorgeous imagery. The main character is blind, yet sees more than any sighted person ever could. It made me rethink the way I take in the world around me, from nature to politics.”

All the Light We Cannot See book

For more exquisite books, you might like my selection of the most beautiful books to treasure on your bookshelves for years to come, as well as my favourite beautifully illustrated books.


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